On Safe Spaces and Swimming

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we undervalue the gift of safe spaces.

Sometimes I think the only thing I did right as a single parent was to offer a safe space for my kids to raise themselves. That is, of course, an exaggeration on a couple of levels. But it speaks to what I told my eldest upon their graduation from college this past weekend. Kids have good instincts, and they seek and need agency. Sometimes trusting our children and getting out of their way is the only way. Obviously it isn’t always the answer. But in they years after my divorce, a lot of things happened to me, and one of them was that anxiety created a sense of hypervigilance. It led me to think about emotional safety a lot, especially about how to provide it to my kids during a difficult transition to our new family structure. With my child’s recent graduation from college, I witnessed, reflected on, and admired who they are and how they have grown and become more and more themselves over these last few years. I hope, at the very least, that I played a role in helping them feel safe and loved and cared for along their journey.

As parents, we work toward where I find myself now—being ancillary in our children’s lives. On a day-to-day basis, our presence is not needed for our older children to function and flourish in the world. It isn’t that they don’t turn to us, and it isn’t that they don’t feel emotionally connected to us, but their lives are their own. When problems arise, they may or may not ask us for advice, they may or may not even tell us there is a problem. They are simply living and handling things. This self-sufficiency is what we have striven for as parents. I’ve always had a sense since my children were very little that everything I did was in preparation for them to leave me. Yet, living on this side of it is a strange and emotional time.

When your child graduates from college it is inevitable that you reflect on your parenting. It is impossible to not recall the first day of preschool and kindergarten, all the ups and downs of middle school and high school. The day you helped them get the dorm room set up is etched on your heart, the way you drove away and left them there, thinking, as you did when you dropped them off at preschool, is this right? This is what people do? We walk away now?

For divorced families, when you think about your child’s upbringing, there is a Before and After. Inevitably you will wonder if you got things right, on either side of that line. Each situation is different. For me, as a single parent I felt as though I was constantly trying to figure out how to make what had been fractured feel whole and safe and enough again.

It occurs to me that after years trying to make my children’s lives feel that way, I am now trying to make my own life feel that way. Whole and safe and enough. With each milestone the kids achieve, with each further step they take into their own lives and futures, I am left with increasingly stark reminders of what I need to do for myself.

My own childhood was populated with a crowd of siblings and two parents who are still together. College was full of roommates, boyfriends. Not long after, I was married and soon after, having children. After the divorce I tried soothing the loneliness of single parenting with relationships that ultimately could not be parlayed into something long-term. Each time something ended, as hard as it was, as disappointing as it was that it didn’t “work out” the way I had hoped, parenting, in many ways, was easier. Flying solo, I was able to try and tune in more effectively to what my kids needed.

But now, I have the time and space to focus wholeheartedly on myself. Yet I have had very little practice trying to figure out how to make that whole and safe and enough scenario happen by myself and for myself.

I’m getting closer, but I’m still not there. And I wonder, too, are we ever truly there? I haven’t even been able to articulate it as a goal until recently. Since I’m always thinking about the future, worrying about it, I imagine scenarios. If I decide I’m okay, if I’m whole and safe and enough on my own, does that mean I’m closing the door on a future with someone? Or is that mindset what actually opens the door to the “right” relationship? I’m thankful to friends who help me consider these ideas, who remind me to spend some time in right now instead of always trying to fill in the blanks ahead.

Sometimes I mentally catalogue when I felt the most whole and safe and enough so I can try and recreate it. There was usually someone by my side. Can I not remember feeling that way when I was alone, or did it never happen? It is easier to remember the times I did not feel that way, far easier to remember the events that left me feeling fractured and unsafe and inadequate. I have spent a long time trying to stop feeling hobbled by heartbreaks. This is precisely what this time is for, this time I have to myself right now. It is a time not only to heal from all the past hurts but a time to reassess how I look at myself.

When was the last time you looked at yourself in a way that freed you from context? How do we see ourselves when we remove all the filters of what we do, who we’re related to, who we live with, who and what we’ve lost?

Photo by Ellie Burgin on Pexels.com

Of course those things are all huge parts of who we are but there’s a self in there who is the one doing all the adapting to all the things that happen to us. I wrote a poem once, called “Minnows.” It opens like this:

Do we learn to love

The way fish learn to swim

Or the way we learn to fish?

There are things we begin to teach ourselves out of instinct, about how to know and love ourselves. These ideas are soon enhanced and/or undercut by other external lessons. Sometimes I think the more we know of the world, the less we know of ourselves.

Sometimes, we are in relationships that are collaborative and supportive and allow us the space and care to help us to know ourselves better. These might be romantic relationships, familial ones, or friendships. And sometimes, we are in relationships that take us further and further away from ourselves. Usually when we’re in them we are not thinking about them in such terms but when we’re out, it all becomes clearer. And of course, some relationships morph from the former to the latter, and it’s hard to tell what’s happening. I wish I’d understood the importance of this distinction sooner. But I’m learning. The more I learn about myself, the more I understand how hollowing it is to be in relationships where I am becoming less of who I am instead of more. It is this knowledge that soothes loneliness when it strikes: at least that isn’t happening.

I often think of this chapter as a rebuilding one, as if I’m putting myself back together, reconstructing, improving. But maybe it is one more characterized by paring down, unwinding, unlearning. Maybe it is just remembering how to be a sleek little minnow learning how to swim.

Love, Cath

On Voice, Moment, and Movement

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes moments are motion, and our voice guides us through, if we listen.

Spring weather here can be a strange mix, with warm sun shining down while a frigid wind blows. Moment by moment you are alternately completely comfortable, basking in the sun that soaks into your skin, and then suddenly freezing and wishing you had a hat and gloves. This weekend my emotions played out similarly.

With my son home for a visit, relieving the solitude of my day-to-day life, I alternately felt happy, comfortable, and relaxed, and then suddenly sad and anxious, as if I existed in the moment and the ones just before and just after all at the same time.

In the course of running some errands, we stopped at the pottery studio where I take my class. I picked up a couple of glazed pieces that hadn’t turned out as I’d hoped, then we headed to the nearby gardening center. As we wandered the greenhouses, my emotions were all ebb and flow. There were layers washing over one another: the disappointment over my pottery was softened by plans for how I could improve next time; the excitement over what plants I might buy to spruce up the yard wilted as I worried about costs; but mostly, the joy at having my son home and spending time together was being washed over at the edges with the sadness of knowing we only had a short time together, and with the ache of wishing my daughter could have been with us too.

People say, live in the moment. In that moment, I was giving myself the same instruction. Do not focus on disappointment or sadness; be here with your son and the beautiful plants the smell of hyacinth and this adorable cat who wandered up to greet you. It isn’t as if I ignored joy and dwelled only in the darker thoughts. But sometimes, you have to hold it all at the same time. Sometimes the moment pushes and pulls you as though you are standing chest deep in a big lake and the waves make stillness impossible.

In navigating the movement of the moment, I often feel as though I’m straining to hear a voice over the distraction of ambient sound. I am trying to coax this voice to greater volume. The voice of instinct, of guidance, can be so quiet in me sometimes, but I have begun to understand why.

In my writer’s workshop, we’ve been talking about voice, and the way any novel opening can work if the voice is effective. When I’m writing a novel it takes a while to find that voice. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that the issue of voice in my writing and the strong clear voice of instinct that I have been listening for within me were one and the same.

There are many reasons why it is hard to hear and trust that voice within us, nudging us toward good things, warning us away from trouble. I think it can be difficult to hear your own voice if ever you were told that you were too sensitive or too needy. In response, you might have found yourself voicing feelings and needs less frequently and more quietly. You began to observe, trying to determine what emotions are allowed to be expressed, and when, and by whom. Over time, the weight of what you haven’t expressed makes you empathic. You are in-tune to the deep feeling of others because it is so heavy in you. You might have become a servant to other people’s emotions, knowing how it feels to have things unattended to. Sadly, in this way, we teach ourselves to listen more closely to others than we do to ourselves.

Well-meaning people tried to protect you from a mean world but didn’t understand that your openness and sensitivity were strengths, not liabilities. You didn’t need a thicker skin, you needed understanding, maybe some tools to help you cope. Later, less well-meaning people were able to spot your vulnerability, told you to trust them and not yourself, and that was easy to do, because your own voice had grown so quiet.

This voice is how we navigate everything, so when it is quiet, we are filled with self-doubt. And even when we train ourselves to listen for it again, it is easy to discount it.

I’ve recently tried to start running again, and I’m still incorporating a lot of walking into my running because in the past I’ve made the mistake of trying to ramp up too quickly, and I get injured, and then I can’t run at all for a while. I used to think that I “failed” at a run if I needed to stop at walk. The mindset I’m trying to cultivate now is that a successful run is the one I’ve begun. It is the one in which I listen to my body and walk when I need to.

I used to think that I failed if a story got rejected, if I never heard back from an agent, if the guy from the dating app who was messaging me disappeared. But I’m realizing now that every time I begin again, I succeed. Every time I listen to my instincts and chose hope, resilience, and perseverance, it matters. Of course, we need to rest, to pause and listen to that voice within us, to keep recalibrating our efforts to our purpose.

Do we ever get it right, the balance between when to push ourselves and when to pull back? Or does getting it “right” mean that we cultivate the awareness that balance is achieved through this movement? Sometimes it seems that balance is more about living in midst of that ebb and flow, the push and pull, than it is about a finding that briefest moment of stillness somewhere in the middle of it all. My comfort zone is in that middle space, and I’d love to learn how to expand it, but so much of life happens in the waves pushing and pulling me away from it.

Whether it is learning how to exist in a moment that is filled with the fluidity of past, present, and future all at once, or existing in the process of working through “failure” toward what we value and what we want, being able to accept the movement of the moment, of all that is pushing us and pulling us as we try to keep our footing, relies on us hearing our own voice and letting it guide us. This is our work.

I have learned that I only experience peace in the midst of all these processes when I am able to hold it all at once, when I can embrace a moment and the movement around it. It is the cat in the warm greenhouse, and the cold wind, and the peppering of disappointment and worry, and the scent of hyacinth, and my son with me now, and his imminent leaving, and missing my daughter, and the sunny joy of love, and all of it all at once.

I hope you find peace in the process and can always hear your voice.

Love, Cath

On Messiness, Moodiness, and Harmony

By Catherine DiMercurio

I usually am craving spring by March. This year, I am stunned to discover that I am not, at least, I’m not consistently yearning for it the way I usually am this time of year. I am no fan of prolonged winters and I’m not as cold tolerant as a lifelong Michigander should be, yet with the promise of long days ahead I have the sense that I’m still in some sort of cozy, dark cocoon I’m not ready to come out of. I think much of this is due to the largely self-imposed idea that the longer the day, the more productive I should be. Yet, no one is policing me. And I do love finally feeling the sun and digging in the dirt. I’m sure, when the time comes, I will be ready.

But, the time change often makes the transition to spring feel forced, unnatural. In general, I have found that most transitions are difficult for me. It takes me longer than I expect, always longer, to recalibrate my brain and heart. Changes take time to get used to, even if we are ready for them.

This has been a time of noticing for me. I have spoken here often of the abrupt shift to solitude I experienced when my son moved out at the end of the summer, and this experience coming on the heels of other endings. In the months that have elapsed, I have taken care to notice things about myself that previously only fluttered to the surface of my perception, when my attention was more keenly attuned to the other people inhabiting my daily life. Despite periods of loneliness, it has been a gift to become reacquainted with my own natural rhythms, my own seasons.

Sometimes I wake to the feeling that I am in my own little bubble floating on the periphery. I don’t mean this in a covid way, though surely the isolation of the past two years has contributed to this feeling for many people, myself included. I think this shift must be common to many empty nesters, particularly single parents. One day you are the safe and solid center of a little family’s busy hum of activity. And then . . . you sense you are still that, but in a way that is fractured and more theoretical. It is normal, natural, abrupt, and jarring all at once. Though you always knew your children were universes unto themselves, not simply a part of yours, when you cohabitate all the universes merge and overlap and interact. And then, they do not, not in the same way.

Everyone’s life has changed dramatically in the past two years. We are still in the process of molding what things are supposed to look like now as a society, while individually we are integrating covid adaptations into our lives along with all the other changes that naturally happen to a person and a family over the course of two years. We simultaneously feel an urgency to play catch-up and to re-evaluate.

It is so messy. I find that the chaos of Michigan weather in early March mirrors my headspace at this time of year. When I began writing this earlier this week, it was about to snow and 19 degrees out. In a few days, the temperature is supposed to be almost 70 degrees. When I woke too early recently, I turned on the light, tried to write, got sleepy, tried to fall back asleep. Maybe I did for a few moments. I rose and warmed up yesterday’s coffee, let one dog out and in, greeted the other still half-asleep dog, and as I walked down the hall back to my bedroom, coffee in hand, I felt as though my mood changed with each step. I was angsty over beginning the workday on not enough sleep, worried and despondent about the collection of things that currently trouble me, overwhelmed by all the house and yard stuff that is going to need to be tackled soon. And as I reached the end of the hallway rug and my right foot hit the hardwood floor, I smiled. I smiled because of the dogs. I smiled at the glimpse of my bedroom, with its pretty blue walls and embroidered curtains. I snuggled back in bed to write, pleased to be in my own space, and that I still had time to write before I had to turn to the rest of the morning and all its business and busyness.

Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com

One of the things about where I am now is that I have time and space to have mood shifts that don’t need to be explained or mediated. It is much easier for me now to experience difficult feelings and move through them in an organic way rather than to have to compartmentalize as I’ve done in the past. I have been the type of partner who has moved my own mood out of the way when it seemed like the simplest path toward what I perceived to be harmony. I made things disharmonious within myself to try and cultivate and preserve harmony in the relationship. I’m not certain I will ever know to what extent I did this because of internal or external expectations. Most likely, it was both. I like to imagine a future relationship in which this type of behavior will not be expected of me by my partner or myself, and in which I will keep the lessons I am learning about myself now at the forefront. In which my compulsion to make things easier for someone else will not supersede my ability to voice and address my own needs. It isn’t that we shouldn’t have empathy toward our partner, but we must have equal empathy for ourselves. No one should have to feel like they are somehow in someone else’s way.

March is a messy, muddled month. But it churns with energy, and we mirror its moods. We are sunny, it is raining, it is snowing, we are tired, hope sprouts beneath the dead leaves that protected it in the long cold months. It is windy, we are moody, look, here’s the sun again. It can be difficult to find harmony in this season of change. But if we cultivate a practice of noticing, of observing the fluctuations in our mood and states of minds, and states of hearts, if we let it all move through us, jangling and cacophonous like a windchime in a March storm, maybe it will be harmony that finds us in the aftermath.

Love, Cath

On Spinning, Wobbling, and Stillness

By Catherine DiMercurio

For a long time, I was sleeping okay, and then that little fragile peace in me eroded. Though the far-too-early-morning wakefulness startled me with the way it insisted on itself night after night, I am not surprised. Too many things have churned together to create a new storm of worry that percolates at the edges of my consciousness even when I’m not actively focused on it.

On a macro level, the world is perpetually upside down. Though it seems the pandemic is abating somewhat, we are on the edge of our seat waiting to see if it is true, if there won’t be some new variant, if this will be a collective dream we get to wake from. Added to this hazy fog of uncertainty we have the war in Ukraine, the stunning, unprovoked invasion by Russia that has shocked the world. Though we are un-shocked at the same time; we have been watching Putin’s machinations all along and in a way, there is nothing surprising at all about his actions. We stare at the images of people fleeing their homes or taking up arms, of children and pets huddled in subways, and our problems seem small. Then we turn off the news and remember that we are still trying to cope with our own troubles and though the scope of them is not as dire, everyone has either a small collection of large troubles, or a large collection of small ones, and we are tired. Our feelings and experiences don’t cease to exist when placed within the context of global tragedies. I am learning this. We do not need to obligate ourselves to feel guilty about our own griefs and troubles because someone else is dealing with something bigger. Acknowledging our own pain and struggles does not exclude us from feeling grateful for all that we have, or from feeling compassion and empathy for others. These things can all exist together.

At 4 a.m., my own collection of troubles doubles in size and intensity, because that is 4 a.m.’s particular magic—expanding, elongating, and distorting trouble. It doesn’t matter that I can unpack this suitcase. That I can name each thing that is suddenly on my mind and concerning me. That I can recognize that none of the worries should be overgrown and hungry right now. Things gnaw at us anyway.

I spent several nights sleeping in the guest room after my daughter vacated it following a brief but lovely visit. For one night, both son and daughter were under my roof with me, and there was a powerful sense of safety and familiarity, despite the foreignness that still clings to this new house. Now that they are both in back at school, something in me shifts. I scramble for a metaphor, as if being able to visualize myself moving from one way of being to another will ease the transition. I think of a spinning top wobbling toward stillness. Wobbly. Still. Is that how it feels to return to solitude? I am more familiar with my mother-self than my solitary-self, so the shift from one to the other still feels clumsy.

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Yet, have I ever not felt clumsy? And all transitions feel awkward, don’t they?

The past eight months have been a long transition for me, following the ending of a relationship. After break-ups in the past, I have thought of myself as being in-between relationships. I had a sense that I would find someone else, and I would know when the time is right to do so. Since the last one though, my frame of mind has been different. As I have worked to understand where I have come from, how past relationships have impacted me, and what self that has remained, the certainty that a new relationship is on the horizon has evaporated, while my comfort level with that uncertainty is growing.

I wonder if this is the part where I start to feel less clumsy in my own skin. That is tough to imagine: a me who moves through the world confidently. I think of all the experiences throughout my life that have bricked into place my sense of anxiety and my awkwardness, knowing the way each incident was built on those that came before. As a view of ourselves begins to take shape when we are young, we begin to believe in it. We believe in our perception of the way others see us. And because we are young and do not know that what these beliefs are creating is a construct that can be dismantled, the construct becomes our identity. It shapes us, and our relationships, and when we finally begin to see it for what it is, the façade is so intricate and finely formed it is hard to see it as anything separate from us.

I have always placed a high value on knowing myself. And though it is easy to lose oneself in a relationship, it is often in relationship to an intimate other where we can understand aspects of ourselves that remain elusive when we are alone. We learn about ourselves in those small moments where we compare ourselves with our partners. Preferences and needs rise to the surface. We consider what matters and what does not. On our own, we must find other methods. The work is uncomfortable at times as we excavate, uncover our identities through a slow, sifting process.

Sometimes I tell myself this work will make me a better partner one day, but I realize I am no longer doing it in order to make myself better for someone else. I believed for so long that this is what I needed to do, that this was why things in the past haven’t worked out: because there was something in me that I needed to make better in order for someone to love me. And if by some miracle they loved me even before I was better, then I should consider myself lucky to be loved when I still had so much work to do. It has not been easy, dismantling these damaged notions of self-worth and value. We all have these experiences, incidents that trigger feelings of not being enough. For me, it has been helpful to trace this feeling to its roots, to feel the collection of griefs I learned to bury along the way, to understand finally, so that I do not have to continue to re-create this pattern. It has been a clunky and awkward process but one that has allowed new perspectives to blossom.

This work feels important to me, and I have discovered that I feel a sense of peace and purpose in pursuing a certain harmony within myself. It has the power to leave me feeling at home whether I am spinning or still. I think one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is cultivate the self-awareness that allows us tune in to what leaves us feeling at home within ourselves.

Love, Cath

On Suns, Swimming, and Floating

By Catherine DiMercurio

{Sometimes you have to look at the sun.}

As my children get ready for the next part – for my son, beginning college, living away from home, for my daughter, beginning her junior year, formulating plans for what post-undergrad looks like for her – it is impossible to avoid looking at the sun of it all. Sometimes the shifts in our lives and relationships are small and gradual and we adapt to them almost without noticing the effort, but sometimes the shifts announce themselves brightly; they greedily signal their significance.

beach dawn dusk ocean
Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com

Looking back, I see the inevitable trying too hard, the flurries of energy expended in multiple directions, the lack of calm that often characterized my efforts as a parent. I tried to be better than myself for them, tried to shape myself to tasks that shifted at the very moment I thought I know how to accomplish them, or at the very moment I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to unmake the damage of divorce with deluges of emotion, with little proofs of the constancy and consistency of love, with notes, lots of talking, and sleepless nights full of worry, with hugs, cookies, gifts, lectures, as many meals together as we could, everything I could think of. I tried to pick up jagged shards of broken hearts, and puzzle the pieces back together. I tried to make everything count. I gave up sometimes, angry, resentful, tired, lost. I tried to relax, tried to not be cannibalized by guilt when I got things wrong, when either child was obviously hurting or struggling. I wanted more beach time and forests for us. More breakfasts, more stories, more magic – always. More pasta, too, and road trips fueled by potato chips and coffee. More holding hands. More laughter. More books, more lake-smoothed stones, more stars, moons, more wishes.

Sometimes I think of the curly brackets, or braces, these: {}, and I think being a parent is somehow like them, full of mysterious and elegant purpose, an effort to order, shape, contain the infinite nature of love. I admit, I don’t really know what they mean, for math, or language, and I don’t know what I mean, for my children, but I know that by some cosmic calculus, they have made me who I am, and that I am for them, always. Please know that, wherever you are. I am for you, always.

For me, now, I do what any mammal does when their young grow hearty and capable and ready. Send them off, let them go, and then I return to the den. After that, who knows. The nature shows seem to leave that part out, the camera follows the juveniles as they seek out new lives, not the lumbering mother bear or the lioness, or fox, or hare.

This is like any other part of parenting. You know you will be challenged and changed, but you don’t always know in what ways and you can’t quite predict how you’re going to feel about it.

I’m always amazed at our ability as parents to keep at it even once we realize that everything we do is focused on preparing our children to leave us. We practice goodbye, early, often. The first day of preschool is marked indelibly upon my heart and brain, the exact shape of the moment when I hugged each child, the way their arms felt around my neck. I knelt on the sidewalk. My daughter received and returned my embrace, tight, quick, and then she squirmed away to wait in line in front of the door. My son lingered, waiting, uncertain. He was always a naturally curious child who loved to learn but this sudden separation seemed unexpected and a bit unnecessary to him.

The separation that begins tomorrow is less unexpected, and is clearly a next step that he is more than prepared for. Our mutual sometimes-sadness is rooted quite simply in knowing we will miss each other, and in comprehending that his childhood has ebbed. Is it okay to regard this as a kind of grief for an ending, even though it is surrounded by the joy and excitement about what comes next? And we are, joyful and excited. For both of us, there is new, there is growth and learning, there is a fresh independence, and discovery.

I think of all the energy and urgency I put into parenting and I wonder what becomes of it, and does it turn inward or toward other relationships, or is it so unique to parenting that it exists for itself only. I’m sure it is different for everyone. I know I am not suddenly done parenting, but it is necessarily time to float instead of swim. I am curious what the coming weeks will reveal, if that will feel like a natural movement or a forced one. Will it seem as unfamiliar and urgent as learning to swim felt?

I wrote a while ago about trying to replace anxiety with curiosity and I do try to remind myself of this. A lot of my writing about this transition is a part of that effort, a way to pay attention to what our hearts and brains do during changes like this, a way to wonder and perceive. There is not dread here, only a surplus of emotion.

But surpluses do have a way of overwhelming us sometimes and I have found that this is one of the ways I teach myself about how to manage them. I think that is what we are called to do, perpetually, is to continue to teach ourselves how to manage the multiplicity of evolutions we experience in our lives. We learn, we lean on each other. We celebrate the joys and let ourselves feel the griefs and make ourselves and each other whole through all of it, through the celebration and tears and puzzling the pieces together and swimming and floating and leaning.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On the Dwindled Familiar

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you are out of step and looking for something familiar within yourself.

Lately and often, I’ve been considering the impact of erosion, the way events and transitions and life can lead to a dwindling of the sense of familiarity between ourselves and the world around us, and/or between ourselves and ourselves.

For most people in this chaotic, viral year, familiar routines and habits have evaporated. In the midst of it, as I’ve been writing about here, I’ve moved to a new home, and my son is preparing to leave for college, where he’ll join my daughter on campus, and I’ve been trying to acclimate to it all.

A couple of days ago, my son and I visited my daughter. She’s moved back in with her housemates and is also awaiting the new school year. The three of us walked through the collection of small buildings that form the dorm complex where my son will live. We drove to the river, watched the swans prune, the ducks play, and the geese eat and eat. After ordering some takeout bibimbop, we sat on my daughter’s porch, quietly devouring our spicy rice and vegetables and tofu. We talked about ways to be safe.

two person hold hands
Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

I sat on the porch swing, close to my daughter and I held her hand, as if she were my five-year-old once more, and I missed her suddenly and intensely now that we were together again. I listened to the two of them talk to one another about their class schedules, their futures.

It is not that I’ve been oblivious to how much of their life now unfolds without me in it on a regular basis, but sometimes it just hits you.

This part is over. Has been over, actually.

I was slow to realize.

With my daughter, even though she’s beginning her junior year and talking about what faraway things come next for her after she graduates, it still almost felt like I had time for everyday moments. Even though, despite a brief pandemic-induced period where she moved back home, I haven’t lived with her for some time. Maybe it is because my son is about to leave too that the truth of it all is clarifying for me. Whatever privileged status I may hold in their lives as their mother will not necessarily translate into daily relevance.

At home, at this home-in-the-making, I walk through the house in the morning, letting the dog out, making the coffee, making the bed, and none of it has quite coalesced as familiar. Sometimes, I only feel as at home here as I would in any place where I like the décor. Those books. That pottery vase. The pink tile in the bathroom. The way the light moves through the house throughout the day is pleasing. And we have begun building memories here, a birthday, morning coffee on the back porch, a wide sweep of conversation. Tears and laughter, sleep and restlessness. Meals prepared and eaten together. At the same time, the notion of familiarity can feel elusive.

I am only slowly realizing that familiar does not always have to do with what the things I thought it did – time, memory, history, objects.

I have new possessions and old ones here in this new place, but the old things have the same hum as the new, though I know them better. Possibly I’m confusing the notion of familiarity with something else.

And then suddenly sometimes it all shifts into place with a soft sigh. I am not always half a step off from the general flow of things, but with all the churn and shove of these transitions, I can be a beat behind. I’m noticing too that people notice what I haven’t, like how long I pause sometimes before I’m able to catch up. I tried explaining this recently to my son but I don’t think I was able to make much sense of it.

At times, I feel at once melancholy and joyous, as if both of these are simultaneously my natural states, and I am perpetually tugged in one direction or the other, and the unease I feel within my own skin sometimes is a side effect of the journey from one state to the other.

This is all to say that sometimes our world and the miniscule and the enormous upheavals therein cause us to feel unfamiliar to ourselves, as we try to respond to all the things we need to. Sometimes we try and fail. Sometimes we try and are slow to realize that we aren’t failing. We are in a state of trying. We are earnest. We are tugged between versions of ourselves. We are tugged in and out of the flow that everyone else seems to keep pace with.

Perhaps the most centering power, the thing that consistently brings me back to myself, is the act of looking into the eyes of those people I love, and being recognized. The warm brown eyes of my son, kind and astute, grounded and curious. My daughter’s sea gaze, all grey and green, passion and power and depth. The blue sky eyes of my love, a soar of melody and truth, wisdom and sweetness.

We are all moving through our own states, and sometimes we are trying to catch up to ourselves and to each other and to the world. We owe ourselves and each other recognition and respect, patience and compassion.

Love, Cath

On Thresholds, Love, and Language

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we halt on a threshold and consider how words fail us.

As February inches to a halt in its slow, frozen way, and we in the Midwest stand here on the almost-verge of spring, I’m thinking of thresholds. Thresholds as in, the space existing after one thing and before another, and as in limits.

One of my earliest memories is of standing on the curb at the door of the school bus that was to take me to kindergarten. I remember the black rubber tread on the steps leading up and in, and little else. I remember feeling frozen. Years later, I asked my mother why I wouldn’t get on the bus. She said I told her it was too loud. A lot of the world feels that way, still. The overall sensory impact of a chaotic world is like a static-y radio turned up too loud. Outside that kindergarten bus, I imagine it wasn’t just the noise as overwhelming decibel level, but the clanging chaos of social unknowns, represented by overlapping voices, the chatter of classmates that I did not yet know, conversations in-progress, which I couldn’t access. My sisters were my friends, but they were in first and second grade.

I remember too the safe quiet bubble of my mother’s car as she drove me to school. I think she drove me for the first week, maybe longer. (The first time I managed to actually ride the bus was terrifying and I left my gym shoes on the bus and when everyone else was putting sneakers in cubbies against the wall, I was crying because I’d forgotten mine.) But in the car, there was reprieve. It was a hushed in-between place, and my mother was there, and it felt like everything was okay, at least for that little while, from house to school.

My son and I recently took an evening to visit my daughter at college. On the way home, he talked about how much he loved being in the car, because he did not have to be doing anything. He allowed himself to relax, chat, zone out, and not have to be productive. For him it was a reprieve from homework, student council emails, scholarship applications. Often, as I’m commuting 30 minutes or so to work, I similarly have the feeling of not wanting to get there yet. I can give myself credit for being a responsible adult going to work, but I do not yet have to face responsibilities and ingest their corresponding stresses.

I think of how much our lives create webs of responsibility and how there are very few places where we are legitimately de-obligated from fulfilling them.

Reflecting on that frozen moment when stepping onto the bus seemed equivalent to stepping off a cliff, I consider how words are such inadequate tools for conveying ideas related to feeling. We use collections of words as convenient but undersized vessels for ideas that don’t fit into them. We say terror or panic but what we mean involves the loss of a safe world, a known version of ourselves as its primary inhabitant, and the abyss of a new universe where there is no familiar anything, anyone. We try to contain with words emotions too big for our bodies, almost too big for our hearts to feel, let alone express.

I think of how else language fails us. I think of what mothering me would have been like, and though I am a mother I still can’t imagine it. I remember each of my own children’s first days – of preschool, kindergarten, high school. Dropping my daughter off at college. I imagine what it’ll be like, in a matter of months, to leave my son in his dorm room. How does one say, at such points of disembarking, I love you but I have to go this way. You have to go that way. Sometimes the simultaneous joy and pain of loving leaves us frozen.

That words never fail to fail us is especially true of love, all of our loves. We should have more words for it, better ones. There is no concise way to say I [love-that-holds-within-it-comprehension-of-all-my-maternal-shortcomings] you. No way to truly capture the sorrow of loss that grows like a long blade of grass alongside the child’s every accomplishment as witnessed from the parent’s perspective. The way loving means I am teaching you to leave me, to be you, to belong to yourself. Though you belong with me, now, you don’t belong to me. 

macro photography of droplet on green leaf during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Other ways of loving are similarly challenged by vernacular limitations. There is no easy way to express I [love-that-arrives-as-a-surprise-after-long-and-difficult-journeying] you. No way to really say that we simultaneously want to protect it as if it is vulnerable moss at the edge of a forest path in danger of being crushed by the heavy footfall of experience, and the way we lean against it as if it is the sturdiest oak in the woods.

I wonder, if we did have language for such things, would it be easier? If there were precise words for the types of love we wanted to express, would we use them more freely? Or, would our threshold for the feelings such words encapsulate still be in danger of being breached, and would we instead reach for softer words, blurry words, in order to contain? Perhaps language has limits for a reason. Perhaps as a species we have created the language we can safely wield, and nothing more.

I think, too, of those places of reprieve, and how they involve solitude sometimes, and quiet, supportive companionship at others. It might be in the car, in bed, over coffee. It might be that we don’t recognize these spaces as thresholds, as places in-between where we are allowed not to go this way or that way, not to have to deal with this responsibility, or that one. Where we don’t have to consider our threshold for what our hearts can express.

Writing this, my mind hops back to a couple of years ago when I began this blog and how the analogy of the road trip began it all, and how many times I have returned to it in various manners. Wherever you are journeying today, I hope you find that bubble of calm and quiet, when you are neither here nor there.

Love, Cath

Watercolor Pears and Other Journeys

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we let love remind us we’re okay.

As I hug my daughter, I want to steal back the moments I let go of maybe too easily. I tried to cherish everything I could. But when our children are ready to leave, our becoming ready to let them go gets messy. We let anger, or distance grow, because there is an illusion that it makes the leaving easier. It makes readiness appear to be something finished and beautiful, a little masterpiece of growth, and in a way, it is. But it is also green and new, for us as parents and for them as children.

My daughter left for college a year and a half ago. This weekend, visiting, I wondered, how is it that you do not live in my house anymore. How is it that we so often misunderstand and misuse time, and each other, even when we are telling ourselves different truths. I am not taking this for granted. I appreciate this moment, and that one. The easy ones, the tough ones, the laughter and tedium in between. The fact is, it isn’t possible to appreciate them all, not in the moment. But, possibly, I don’t comprehend the universes contained in each moment. The way that when mother and daughter yelled across the threshold of her pre-slammed door, the instant was a multitude, was everything that brought us there, was everything it would launch us into.

All of what I understand about living and loving could fit in a thimble. If I were a fruit fly, I would swim in it like a swan at sunrise.

At the same time maybe I knew more than I thought I did, and I let go enough and held on enough, and it is only now, with the absence of my daughter in my home a daily reminder of how life tumbles forward, that I feel as though I want to sweep it all back into my embrace for just another minute, every breath we breathed under the same roof. At the same time, it’s now, and she’s doing okay, more than okay.

The dog has found a spot near my feet. Sometimes I think he understands living and loving better than anyone, but maybe he has never quite adjusted to my daughter leaving. He attached himself differently to my son next. But soon, my son will also be gone and my dog will look at me and not understand why love has come to this. Why I, with all my insufficiencies, am the one he is left with. He will think of his girl and his boy and sigh and wish for them every day and I will come home from work and he will resign himself to loving me as best as he can. Possibly, though, he simply loves me.

I think of how many ways there are to love and how each one of them tries to break our hearts even as it expands them. Because it expands them.

I think too of the love we find – after time and heartbreak have suggested, perhaps urged, maybe you’ve had enough. I think of the way I ran toward it, us, anyway. How we sat over coffee cups, hearing each other’s voices for the first time, not really knowing what to expect of self, other, this. How learning the shape of this is a gift.

Years ago, I took a watercolor class. I learned a little, most of which I’ve forgotten. The instructor mentioned that I’d benefit from a drawing class, advice I never took. But I learned that I loved this medium, and that it calms me even if my work is simplistic and flawed, and to call it amateurish would be a compliment.

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I love seeing pencil sketch lines beneath pale washes, the way the layers build and you can see both the cumulative effect and the process at the same time. It’s like witnessing journey and arrival in the same moment, even if the arrival is not at the intended destination. No, that is not the way I thought this painting of a pear would turn out. But, still. The beautiful thing is, both “good” and “bad” paintings can be witnessed and appreciated in this same way.

How luxurious it is to appreciate and be appreciated not because we’ve made it to an expected or anticipated destination, but simply as journeyers who have arrived, here, now. In this multitude of a moment. And we’re okay. More than okay.

How new and beautiful it can be to love (ourselves) this way.

Love, Cath

 

On Peaches, Hiccups, and Fish, or Finding Talismans

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we work so hard trying to get it all right, but it already is alright.

Yesterday opened with a rejection that sounded at first like an acceptance, like a win, a big one. And also, a second rejection. I don’t usually get two literary journal rejections back-to-back on a Monday morning, with one of them needing to be re-read four times just to make sure. As the day unfolded, my Monday also gifted me with two “hiccups,” which involved each child texting me at work – simultaneously – with different issues that needed some urgent and ongoing consideration.

I write a lot about transitions here. I felt as though, at the end of August, I was properly girding myself for the emotions of the next transition. Moving my daughter into a room in a house she’d be sharing with several other students, her first non-dorm college living experience. Moving into my son’s senior year, beginning with the last orchestra camp and the last first day of high school.

I’ve reminded myself that at this point, life is not calm vs. storm, but really just water. A living, breathing ocean with quiet waves and ravenous storms and everything in between. It is characterized by constant movement. And with this insight I had prepared myself for a new season of shift and change, ebb and flow.

Yet I wonder sometimes, what do fish notice, and how does a storm feel deep below the waves? Is it only churn and chop near the surface?

blue discus fish
Photo by Lone Jensen on Pexels.com

On Sunday I blanched peaches in advance of jam-making. I was thinking about the particular and curious satisfaction of September’s liminality, that glorious, tumultuous in-between summer and fall place, a place where little scraps of peace, that feel at once like summer and fall, fall into place.

I stood at the sink gently pushing away the skin from the blushing fruit beneath my thumbs, and I found cherished calm there. I thought, maybe Love does that, loving and being loved. Maybe it makes it easier to find those quiet depths even when the rest of the world is topsy-turvy, even when the children are molding themselves to the shape of new expectations, and even when an avalanche of new transitions and uncertainty waits up ahead for me as well.

I think, I want to remember this, I want to remember the feeling.

I wanted Sunday’s interlude with peaches to be more than a lovely distraction. I wanted the memory of calm to be accessible later, to protect me from the seemingly omnipresent protective anxiety about my children I wear like a talisman.

I need a talisman to protect me from my talisman.

I wear worry like a tattooed eye warding off evil. I fret about catastrophe I hope to keep at bay by paying attention, somehow, to everything that might go wrong, large and small, money, the future, my impending move, how my view of myself will necessarily morph once I am no longer mothering in the same way.

I can imagine it all, and I can’t.

Though it may be something of an illusion, I think that if I spend time worrying about things now, I might be able to shape myself to change and new with some alacrity, if I’m paying attention in all the right ways to all the right things.

As my Monday progressed, post-lunchtime hiccups, I did my best to troubleshoot while staying focused at work; to assess and reassess once home; to weigh pros and cons; to manage the easier hiccup and consider and second guess the other, which was really quite a bit more than a hiccup; and to try and bury the popped-balloon anguish instilled by the rejection that opened with we’d like to congratulate instead of unfortunately. I tried to pay attention to all the right things in all the right ways.

At one point, my son noted, you’re handling this all really well. Though it was a wonderful compliment, it was also impossible for me not to see this observation in contrast to the immediate post-divorce years, when all the juggling and figuring out and managing felt crushing, and I maybe did not handle it all really well, maybe not at all, surely not often enough.

And enough. Enough. That word rises to the surface again and again and it isn’t a gentle rising to the surface like a little bubble rises. It’s a thrust generated by a seismic event on the ocean floor that disturbs the calm in the depths, causes destruction at the surface.

Enough is one of the cruelest words in the lexicon of identity because it is both quake and seismograph.

But, my evening progressed. I worked. I worked with my Love on tasks that wanted doing. I shaped myself to a purpose with recognizable dimensions and did it alongside someone I would pretty much do anything alongside of. I came home, put the final touches on whatever managing of hiccups/not-hiccups I could. I still felt the chop and churn of enoughness and not-enoughness. I didn’t remember what I wanted to about the peaches. Still, it was quite impossible to not feel loved. It was impossible to resist the perpetual buoy of it all, and I don’t really know anything that serves as greater protection against evil than that.

Love, Cath

On the Way We Move Through the World

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the way we see ourselves helps, sometimes it hurts.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first-born, my daughter, I developed a vision of myself, of the way I would move through my pregnancy. I imagined all that good, earthy, powerful woman-hood stuff and wanted to be infused with a grace and a centeredness that I hadn’t possessed before. I wanted to be transformed. Of course, I was transformed, but not the way I imagined. As my body changed, I grew to be clumsier and more awkward than ever. As much as I wanted to bond with my unborn infant, I often felt attacked by an unknown entity that was devouring me, making me feel fatigued, nauseous. I usually did not feel beautiful and earthy. Looking back, everything I felt was entirely normal. Of course all my experiences felt foreign and confusing; I’d never been pregnant before. And in all the ungainly heft of it, there were moments, hours that sometimes stretched into days, where I did feel somewhat miraculous. And the first time I felt a little nudge from my kiddo, elbow or foot, I’m not sure which, I did feel a crazy inexplicable bond begin to grow. I could call this entity in me a person, but a living creature gestating inside of you doesn’t always feel like a future someone in your life the first time around. So the bond I’m speaking of isn’t like the bond you feel with a human walking around outside your body. When my daughter was born and was placed in my arms, that which had long been other but part of me became something else. Her. Whole. I remember my first thought: Oh! If I had only known it was you. . . .

She was a universe unto herself. One that would depend on me and her father for everything. Of course, the entire time that she was incubating in me, I was developing a range of ideas about what kind of mother I would be. And I felt just as ungainly and confused learning how to parent as I did learning how to be pregnant. I didn’t have any sort of instinctual gift. I questioned every single instinct I did have. I never gained a sustained confidence in my abilities as a caregiver, moral instructor, spiritual advisor, shaper of another human’s psyche. And it didn’t become any clearer once my son was born. The territory shifted. There were two of them. And any ideas I had of myself as a mother once again were turned on their head, because this other little person needed a different me than the first one did in many ways. Once again my expectations of how I would walk through motherhood, of how to parent this little brood, butted up against the realities of doing the job. To be honest, they still do. Everything changes, all the time, and every skill you possess as a person and parent is called upon as your children change and as the world changes and as their world changes and you cannot keep up, not ever, but you simply have to keep trying to make sense of it. I am still not the mother I imagined I would be. To be honest, I’m still not the mother I hoped I’d be. She’s still out there, a version of me who will know and say and do the right things at the right time, and sometimes she and I inhabit the same space and we do okay.

ballet ballet shoes blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our ideas about who we are and who we want to be are perpetually shifting as the terrain shifts beneath our feet, as people exit our lives, or enter. As we gain new experiences. As we leave pasts behind and enter new spaces. We envision ourselves in a certain, idealized way. In every vision I’ve had of how I want to be, how I expected to exist in the world, I always see this version of myself as graceful. I’ve always wanted to possess physical grace. As a child I desperately wanted to take ballet lessons. One Halloween I got to dress up like a ballerina and I was ecstatic. Being an actual ballerina was not in the cards, but that idea of confidence, poise, grace – it stayed with me, and I always wondered how it would have changed me. Would what seems like natural clumsiness have evaporated in a ballet studio? Would I be less likely to run into furniture, trip on sidewalk cracks, stub toes, tumble into garden mishaps that involve crucifixion via rose thorns through my palm?

I’ve imagined what it might look like to walk through my life with poise and confidence. I still envision myself in a manner I haven’t inhabited. I do not feel possessed by a sense of calm, by accumulated wisdom, by a carefully curated and fully-realized perspective, as I had hoped to be at this point in my life. Not every day. Not most moments. But sometimes. Sometimes we inhabit the same space, she and I, and we do okay.

I don’t know if it is good or bad, to have this vision of how we’d like to be. Are we setting ourselves up for failure? Or have we given ourselves realistic ideas of self to aim for? I guess it depends on our vision. Maybe grace and wisdom are out of reach most days, but who knows?

Love, Cath